Few people have as much insight into the rise and run of "The X-Files" as Frank Spotnitz.
Spotnitz joined the show as a writer in its second season and worked as a writer/producer until the Fox drama ended its nine-season run. He rose to the level of executive producer, directed episodes of the show and worked on the "X-Files" movies that were released during and after the show's run.
None of it was easy.
Part of the reason an obscure show that aired on Friday nights rose to such heights of popularity and influence was because Chris Carter, the show's creator and executive producer, was a demanding boss.
"He was really uncompromising," Spotnitz said in an interview about his time on "The X-Files." "He didn’t care if you didn't like him because he was being so difficult, but he just insisted that you do your best."
In my experience, Carter was actually quite calm and measured in person, but brought a quiet intensity to everything he did, and that kind of focused dedication was certainly expected from everyone who worked on "The X-Files." (As a writer/editor at a magazine called Cinescape and later as the editor of the Official "X-Files" Magazine, I talked to Carter and other "X-Files" staffers many times.) It's not hard to arrive at the conclusion that the results of that dedication speak for themselves. Veteran "X-Files" writer/producers such as Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa went on to work on shows such as "Homeland," "24," and "Breaking Bad," and many of the best directors working in television today got their start with Mulder and Scully.
One more feather in the show's cap: On Thursday, the 20-year anniversary of "The X-Files" September 1993 debut is being celebrated with a reunion panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. (Don't miss our coverage of "The X-Files" 20th anniversary: We've got "X-Files"-themed interviews with Gilligan, Gillian Anderson and soon, a talk with Gordon).
Spotnitz is currently working on "Sam Hunter," a miniseries incarnation of "Hunted," an excellent Cinemax espionage drama that debuted last year. He took a break from Sam's adventures to talk about the lessons he learned from "The X-Files," the episode that almost got him fired, and what it was like working with Carter and Gilligan (as was the case with Spotnitz, the Fox drama was Gilligan's first TV gig). Spotnitz also talks about his biggest "X-Files" regret, and a few of the "X-Files" experiences and episodes that are closest to his heart. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
How did working on "The X-Files" prepare you for subsequent projects?
Well, it was my first job in television. I had just graduated from film school, and it really ended up being my second film school, because I knew so little about writing for television or producing television. I guess I was a quick learner, because it was a very demanding work environment, and the truth is, most writers didn't get asked back. Most writers didn't last even a season. I think, despite how green I was, I had something from the beginning that Chris Carter recognized, and that allowed me not just to stick around but to thrive, because I went from staff writer to executive producer in three years, which is unusual.
I think "The X-Files" was a really great idea for a TV series, and it was very clear what the storytelling was. It's just a model, I think, of what a TV series franchise should be. So that allowed Chris to find really talented people and demand that they do their best work -- and I think "demand" is the right word. I mean, he was really uncompromising. He didn't care if you didn't like him because he was being so difficult, but he just insisted that you do your best.
Do you think "The X-Files" changed the TV landscape?
Well, I'm reluctant to say something like that, because it feels a bit like patting myself on the back, even though I didn't create the show, but I did work on for eight years. It's true that it was a really ambitious show, and it was as cinematic as it could possibly be, and that was a conscious goal that we shared. I don't think that was the norm when "The X-Files" started. I don't think most television was trying to be cinematic. I think we were still largely in the era of cop- or doctor-type shows, and it was certainly unlike anything else.
It's funny, because I would like to think "The X-Files" had a big influence on television, but I think a big part of [the evolution] has been the decline in broadcast television and the rise of cable. Audiences don't have to be giant for you to be successful. So that's something separate from whatever influence "The X-Files" had.
But having said that, that writer's room and those directors, I think, helped bring about some of those changes, wouldn't you say?
I hope so. I'd be proud to believe that. And I'm glad you mentioned directors, because we had four amazing directors, at least. I mean there's more than that, but four of [the notable ones] on "X-Files" were David Nutter, Dan Sackheim and then especially Rob Bowman and Kim Manners. [During Season 4,] we lost Rob to do "The X-Files" movie, but before we lost Rob, particularly in Seasons 2, 3 and 4, [Rob and Kim] were pitted against each other to see who could out-direct the other guy. It was the best kind of constructive competition you could imagine, because they were both hugely talented. Kim was a lot older than Rob, and they had styles that were completely different.
The visual sophistication of "The X-Files" -- I mean, from Season 1 to the end of Season 4, it's a different show. It's far more sophisticated from the cinematic point of view, and that was, I think, because of the competition.
I got to be on the set with both of them, and with [director of photography in the early seasons] John Bartley, who went on to be the DP for "Lost." And it did not surprise me John ended up on "Lost," because I saw what he and his team were doing.
Absolutely, absolutely. [DPs] John Bartley, Joel Ransom, Jon Joffin, and then Bill Roe once we got to Los Angeles -- they looked at it as if they were making movies, and they pushed what the medium was capable of achieving.
I've worked with a lot of directors at this point, and the thing that Rob and Kim both shared was just they were always so excited. Every time they go [to shoot something], they give everything they have. We lost Kim to cancer a few years ago, but it was especially impressive to spend time with him, because he'd been around a long time, and he'd done a lot of crappy TV. When he got "The X-Files" gig, he thought, "This is my chance to show what I can do." And he wouldn't compromise. He was like, "I'm going to do good work now," and he did. And Rob is still the same way.
I remember sitting there on a Friday night, watching a Fox show on my TV, and a submarine is breaking through the ice in the Arctic, and I'm like, "What the hell?" It looked real. It looked like a movie. It wasn't like, "Oh, this is like a crappy, cheap science-fiction movie." It looked absolutely cinematic.
That was my first episode. And I almost got fired. [laughs] That was not a popular thing, that submarine tower [in Season 2's "End Game"]. It was like, "You people are crazy. We don't do this in television." And then in Season 3, I wrote an episode with a moving train. It was just my ignorance, because I was new to television. I didn't know that's a problem, to have a moving train in television. It's like, "We can't afford this." It was a huge thing.
What happened was, finally they agreed to make it a two-parter ["Nisei" and "737"]. It has a special place in my heart, because it was such a big deal to get there. But the logic became, "Well, these are sweeps episodes." And this is where Chris and Bob Goodman, who was the producer in Vancouver, were so clever, because it was becoming a hit on the Fox network. They were able to persuade [the network] to give us more money, because [they said], "Well, do you want this hit to keep getting bigger? Then invest in it."
Looking back, is there anything that you would change about "The X-Files"?
Well, sure. I loved Robert Patrick [who played one of the main characters after David Duchovny left late in the show's run], but if there was anything I could change, I would still would've loved for him to be in the show, but without Mulder leaving the show. And I say that not as a criticism in any way of David. I completely understand why, after seven years of killing himself, he was tired and didn't want to keep doing it.
But us trying to design this mythology as we went along, it made it virtually impossible to give it some kind of organic, novelistic conclusion, and that's what I would've liked. I think we did about as well as you could do under the circumstances, but those were pretty difficult circumstances.
Would you say "Nisei"-"737," that two parter, was your favorite episode? Or do you have a different favorite that you look back on?
I have so many favorites that aren't ones I wrote. The one with my name on it that is my favorite for a bunch of reasons would be "Memento Mori," which is the one where Scully finds out she has cancer.
[The episode] was actually supposed to be the return of Darin Morgan. Darin had left the show, and he was going to write one more episode. Three or four days before prep, he called and said, "Look, I'm really sorry, I just can't. I can't finish the script. I can't do it.” And we were like, "What? What?" We had no script at all.
We had been debating the Scully cancer storyline, because there were some people who didn't think we should do it. And then we said, "Look, we've got three days. We've got to have a script to prep. And so we're going to go for it." And so in three days, John, Vince and I outlined that story and wrote the draft, and had something to prep.
And then, over Christmas, Chris Carter wrote the script, and then it got made. I think it's the best single mythology episode we ever did. It was just amazing that it almost didn't come to pass.
Was there a defining moment of the series for you, some kind of recognition, like a magazine cover or some event within the show itself?
To me, the highlight was the night the first movie opened. The studio rented a van and Chris and I drove around with the studio chiefs from movie theater to movie theater, and we invariably arrived at the moment when Mulder and Scully almost kiss but they don't because of the bee on her neck.
And the audiences -- it was sold out everywhere, and the audiences were screaming that they weren't kissing. And I just thought, "You don't get to see that": When you only write television, you don't get to see people react. I remember thinking at that moment, "It'll never get better than this." And it didn't. That was amazing.
Do you feel like there's any quality that defines the people who worked on the show?
Every one of those people is really, really smart. But I've met a lot of smart writers in Hollywood, so that's not particularly unusual. But I think it takes a certain kind of person to live up to the ambition that "The X-Files" demanded.
I met some writers, really successful writers, who came and went. They said, "You know what? I just don't want to work this hard. It's just not worth it to me. I've got my life. I've got blah, blah, blah." Everybody who made it on "The X-Files" killed themselves to make it as good as it can be. The truth is, that's what you have to do. There aren't enough hours to do it. We were rewriting to the last second, rewriting it while we're editing the shows. You're never satisfied, and that's the work ethic you need.
One thing that I think might link to the legacy of "The X-Files" is the sense of when to pull back on dialogue and just let the visuals tell the story. That seems to be one commonality that runs through the shows of people who worked there.
That [element was part of] "The X-Files" scripts, which was unusual in television at the time. You were expected to suggest [visual elements] -- not necessarily call out the shots for the directors, which obviously they wouldn't like -- but you were supposed to at least suggest what it is you were seeing and have a sense in your head of how this would play visually.
That is a thing I think a lot of those guys who graduated from "The X-Files" have in common, they do think visually. They're not just writing plays to be filmed for television. They really are thinking about how to tell these types of stories with pictures.
What was it like to work with Vince Gilligan?
Vince is one of the nicest, most talented people in the world. He is just kind and thoughtful and funny and a delight, and he was from the moment I met him. I met him briefly, because as a freelancer, he'd written an episode of "X-Files" called "Soft Light" with Tony Shalhoub. He did such a good job that Chris asked him to join the staff, and he'd never worked in television before. He'd been a hot-shot movie writer -- a prodigy, really. He was discovered in film school. And it was clear from the beginning just how talented he was. I mean, he'd write scenes and you could always tell it was Vince, because his voice is so distinctive and his humor is so distinctive. But he's so unassuming about it. He has no pretension. He's genuinely modest.
Did it surprise you that something as dark as "Breaking Bad" came out of Vince? I would agree with all the things you've said about him, but then you see what's on the screen, and you're like, "Wow, this is incredibly dark."
It is dark. It didn't surprise me, though. And I have this theory -- I may be wrong about it, there could be exceptions to this -- but my experience has been that when I meet people who write really dark stuff, they tend to be really nice. And when I meet people who write really twinkly sweet stuff, they tend to be jerks.
I think people who are in touch with their darkness are probably nicer people, and Vince is in touch with his darkness. There is darkness in life, and that's what you need for great drama. I can't think of any great dramas that don't have darkness in them.
That makes sense. But Vince just seems so even-keeled and so humble and self-effacing, and then this character he's created is this narcissistic, arrogant guy who is almost literally a cancer on the people around him. I wonder if the character of Walter White is Vince's way of expelling those elements from his soul, or something like that.
I think all of us have Walter White inside of us. All of us. I think that's why we respond to him and we recognize him as a character, because we go, "Oh yeah, that's true." That's why "Breaking Bad" is so good, because you watch it and you go, "Yeah, that is the way people would behave." We recognize it, because we understand it.
So you're not Walter White and I'm not, either, but we all have thousands, if not millions, of people inside of us, bits of all these people. And when you're a writer given a character, that's part of the joy of the process: You have to dig down deep and think, "Okay, what would it be like if I were this guy? What would I do?"
And Vince has that capacity -- not just with Walter White, but with an endless number of personality types -- to really put himself in their head and imagine what they would say and do in a really convincing and entertaining way.
You said you could recognize Vince's work as a writer, that his voice was so distinctive. Do you think there's kind of a hallmark to his work or a particular thing that announces it as a piece Vince wrote?
He tends to just choose unexpected words or phrases that are not meant to be funny but are. There's an episode of "Night Stalker," a short-lived series I did that he wrote for. One line in there was something like, "Be real quiet, like a mouse." It was like that, little metaphors and turns of phrase that are funny and memorable, and they tend to bring people to life. And they're so Vince. I think it's just this specific humor that you don't realize how funny it is unless you really think about it.